Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mark of Honor

During the months while my dad was in training for the Ironman triathlon before he was diagnosed with cancer, he mentioned several times that he was thinking about getting a tattoo after he finished the race to celebrate his achievement.  He said that he wanted to get the Ironman logo on his ankle.  Finishing the Ironman was definitely a Bucket List item for him, and we supported his plan to get inked after such an impressive accomplishment.

In the days before and just after the time when he had surgery and when we got the diagnosis, he brought up the subject of the tattoo again, wondering aloud if it would seem like a misrepresentation if he went ahead and got the Ironman symbol on his leg even if he wasn’t able to complete in the event.  I can still recall the feeling of the precariousness of the air in his room in the Neuro-ICU as I think back to the last conversation I had with him about the subject.  “I’d hate to get it done and then have people ask me about it and then I’d have to say I didn’t really do it,” he said to my sister Jennifer and me, certainly picturing himself - as did we and as we surely wanted him to do – years down the road, reminiscing about his battle with brain cancer as a thing in the past.  

What if we get one too – would that make you want to do it?” Jennifer asked him.  

What?? Y’all can’t get one!  It’s only for Ironman athletes!!”  he said, incredulous at the apparent ludicrousness of the idea.  We watched him for a minute as he seemed to be working something out in his head and then he said dispiritedly, “I guess I don’t need to get one either.”  The look in his eyes and the emotion in his voice were heartbreaking, and, looking back, such a harbinger of things to come as he was forced to rewrite his Bucket List again and again due to his declining health.

On the Saturday after my dad went on ahead, we held a memorial celebration in his honor.  I don’t recall how the topic of tattoos came up then as I talked to my mom’s cousin and her husband, but I do remember the stunned look on their faces when I told them that my sisters, my mom, and I were discussing getting a memorial tattoo.  They exchanged a look that appeared to me to be one of horror and pity, one that said, “They are in shock but hopefully they won’t do anything CRAZY!”   I didn’t care, though; like everything my family had been through over the eleven weeks preceding that moment in time, we knew that our situation, our experience, and our perspective were unique, something that no one else would ever totally understand or view as we did.  

Last summer, on our first family vacation without Dad, my sister Nancy brought up the idea again, and my oldest daughter started saying that she wanted to be in on the commemorative inking as well.  The problem was that we weren’t sure of the design we wanted to get or where on our bodies we wanted to get it.  We went back and forth with thoughts and ideas; the frontrunner was a picture of a running stickman that would go on the back of each of our left shoulders.  Still, though, there was some uncertainty, or at least some inaction, and the plan remained inert.

Over the course of the last year, in the time span from one family vacation to another, my sisters, my mom, my daughter, and I all agreed that we liked the idea of having the image be consist of a depiction of the way Dad typically signed off when he wrote notes and messages to people, with two lower-case printed b’s followed by two forward slash marks as an accentuation or underscoring of his initials.  We also decided, based on an astute comment made by my youngest sister Nancy’s best friend, that we wanted to have the tattoo in a place on our bodies where we could easily see it, with the idea that that could bring comfort and inspiration to each of us.

And so, last week, on the day we all gathered in California, three of us decided to take the plunge – Nancy, my daughter Maddie, and me.  My mom and my middle sister Jennifer went with us to the tattoo parlor (they are still considering getting ink and plan to use the same design if they decide to go ahead with the idea at some point), and Mom brought along several samples of things that Dad had written to show the tattoo artist, who actually traced Dad’s writing for the pattern she used on all three of us.

Nancy and I opted to get the design done in navy blue, Dad’s favorite color, and Maddie chose black, which I thought was funny because Dad often wore those two colors together when he ran (“Real runners don’t wear matching outfits!” he claimed.).  All three of us decided to get the design placed facing us, on the inside of our left wrist, since Dad was left-handed, and positioned slightly off-center, to symbolize Dad’s uniqueness.  In what I thought was a really cool and kindhearted gesture, the tattoo artist placed the sticky note that’s she’d used to make the template of the design on the table beside us so we could see it as we got it done.  One after the other, we were marked, in honor and in memory of the man who will always be as much a part of us as the ink on our wrists.

When my daughter told one of her friends what we'd done, her friend said,
"Some families plant a tree in someone's memory, but this is way cooler."

It's not an Ironman insignia, but I think this one was well earned and sits as a mark of honor too.